Varun Arvind, a biomedical engineering junior, was recently named a 2015 Goldwater Scholar, joining only 259 other students out of more than 1,200 nationwide nominees to earn this prestigious award. The only engineering student from New Jersey receiving the award this year, his research focuses on stem cell differentiation and how to replicate its effects to help osteopenia victims or those with traumatic injuries.
At Rutgers, fifteen students applied, and all four of those nominated earned a scholarship, according to Dr. Arthur Casciato, director of external fellowships at the university. This is a first in Rutgers history, and only nine other schools have ever had all of their nominees selected for a scholarship. Each school can nominate four students per year.
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was created in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, who served in the Army Air Force and the Air Force Reserve before being elected to Congress. Its purpose is to recognize and aid science, math, and engineering students who plan to conduct research within their field after graduation, and eventually become experts in that field.
Understanding the mechanics of stem cell differentiation is the purpose of Arvind’s current research under Professor Prabhas Moghe, who he first started working with in high school. If his team can determine how a specific group of stem cells – mesenchymal stem cells – turn into bone and cartilage cells, they can begin developing synthetic materials that are able to serve the same purpose. Ultimately, these materials may be able to replace weakened or damaged bone tissue in patients.
Mesenchymal stem cells are a specific type of adult stem cells that have a limited range of development options – they can only become a few types of cells. Because they are adult cells that would otherwise have no use, there are no ethical concerns with using them for research.
“Part of my project now is to make a model. If you can model [cell] behaviors in biological models [you can try to understand how they work],” he said.
Actually understanding these mechanics is difficult, primarily due to the unpredictability of cell behavior, he said.
“Identical cells might do different things. Sometimes it’s computationally hard,” he said.
Arvind said he first shadowed researchers in Professor Moghe’s lab as a high school student to boost his resume for college applications and medical school. The work was interesting enough that he came back the next year, and eventually applied to Rutgers and continued working in the lab as an undergraduate student. Now he is able to design and execute his own experiments.
“How do you answer a question or design an experiment to answer the question?” he said. “That’s what research and science are about.”
Even just designing the experiment is a learning experience, he said. Determining how to get results can help as much as actually getting them.
“Everything you try for the first time always fails,” he said. “[It] could take months. The beauty in it is when it does work it’s kind of magical.”
Arvind also finds inspiration in the lag between “innovation and application” in the medical field. While in most fields, a new technology or discovery can be used relatively quickly, a new discovery in medicine can take nearly 17 years to be seen in the field. Speeding up this process would help the medical field immeasurably. After graduation, he plans to earn an M.D./Ph.D. while continuing his own research in the field.
Casciato said Arvind’s ability to mentor other undergraduate students is one of the reasons he was nominated for the scholarship. Though he is still a junior, he sees some autonomy in his research, and understands his own work well enough that he can guide others through it.
Having researchers who were also his friends helped him learn and understand his work, Arvind said.
“I’m really thankful for the people in the lab,” he said. “Nobody was condescending, everyone gave me a chance.”
He still stays in touch with some of the researchers who have graduated since he began working at the lab.
When asked for advice to high school students, Arvind said to apply to engineering. Students learn how to approach a problem and come up with unique solutions using methods they might otherwise not learn, he said. These skills can help them in their later careers regardless of where they go.
“Engineering is huge,” he said. “It’s easier to cross-train engineers or computer science majors or math majors into biology than the reverse.”
Story by Nikhilesh De